Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Uncertainty Principle

The term Uncertainty is used in a wide range of fields, including finance, psychology, physics, philosophy and most of all…professional cycling. “Uncertainty” in these disciplines is generally used in reference to predictions of future events, to existing physical measurements or to the unknown. This last component, the Unknown, is of particular interest to the cycling world recently. But I’m not really going to talk about that right now. Stay with me.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (uber-condensed version): “The more precisely the Position is determined, the less precisely the Momentum is known.”

Werner Heisenberg was in his mid-twenties when he shot to the forefront of his profession under the tutelage of a highly revered Danish physicist named Niels Bohr. He was always regarded as a talented mind, but his work in Copenhagen, which helped form the foundation of quantum mechanics, distinguished the German from many of his peers. Although he worked with the likes of Max Born and Pascual Jordan, Heisenberg was always the most highly revered. Ultimately, it was Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle” that came to highlight many of the issues pertaining to quantum theory, both mathematically and philosophically.

Ivan Basso was in his mid-twenties when he shot to the forefront of his profession under the tutelage of a highly revered Danish cyclist and team manager named Bjarne Riis. He was always regarded as a talented racer, but his work for Team CSC, which led to multiple podium finishes behind Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France, distinguished the Italian from his teammates. Although he raced with the likes of Jens Voigt and Carlos Sastre, Basso was always the most highly revered. Ultimately, it was Basso’s triumph at the 2006 Giro d’Italia and subsequent fall from grace that has come to highlight many of the issues pertaining to doping in cycling, both in practice and philosophically.

Werner Heisenberg was the head of Germany’s wartime nuclear energy program during World War II. His efforts during this time are somewhat controversial and there are a number of differing opinions regarding his contribution to nuclear research. Supporters argue that he aided only in stalling the Nazi military’s goal of creating an atomic bomb. Others contend that Heisenberg simply miscalculated the feasibility of a deliverable weapon of this type and focused on nuclear energy research instead. Most historians agree that he was not a strong supporter of the Nazi agenda and likely assumed his role out of a sense of self-preservation and a fear of possible repercussions from his employers.

Ivan Basso was the leader of the best cycling team in the world during the immediate Post-Lance Armstrong Era. His efforts during this time are somewhat controversial and there are sure to be a number of differing opinions regarding his contribution to the doping problem in cycling. Supporters will likely argue that he only attempted to cheat and postponed his unused doping practices until after his most significant victories. Others will likely contend that Basso simply got caught and is now trying to defend his actions and the legitimacy of his prior victories. Most observers will likely agree that he was probably not a strong supporter of the doping culture and likely assumed his role out of a sense of self-preservation and a fear of possible repercussions from his employers.

It should be noted that Niels Bohr, Heisenberg’s Danish mentor not twenty years earlier, was part of a team of physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project. Although nuclear fission was discovered in Germany in 1938, it was this group from the United States, not Heisenberg’s team, that developed the first atomic bomb later used on Japan in August of 1945.

It should also be noted that Bjarne Riis, Basso’s Danish mentor not twelve months ago, was the leader of a team that won back-to-back Tour de France titles in 1996 and 1997. Although recent reports claim that the ’96 team used illegal practices during Riis’ victory and ’97 winner Jan Ullrich has shamefully retired in the wake of Operacion Puerto, it is Ivan Basso who has become the biggest doping story in the world of cycling.

The basis of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is that the simultaneous determination of two paired quantities, for example the position and momentum of a particle, has an unavoidable uncertainty. An Unavoidable Uncertainty. That’s the important part here, so you can forget about the wave-particle duality issues. An Unavoidable Uncertainty. Think about that for a second.

I used to think that we would never really know who is guilty until they admit it. But as Basso’s recent admission proves, even a confession leaves room for doubt and uncertainty. Now I’m thinking that maybe this Heisenberg guy was on to something after all.

In a slightly flawed interpretation, if there is an Unavoidable Uncertainty in the behavior of sub-atomic particles (which, by the way, are the building blocks of everything in the known universe), then there is probably a significant element of uncertainty in the world of cycling.

In fact, I’m certain of it.

2 comments:

Confused said...

Wait...so Basso is going to become a physicist? For the Nazi's? That doesn't sound right. I'm confused.

I thought Quantum Mechanics were the guys that used to work on old Kleins. Again...confused.

Jeremy T. Arnold said...

Dear Confused,

Most people don't know this but the smallest sub-atomic particle known to mankind is the "Basso" followed closely by the "Scarponi." Quarks, Muons, Glouns, Bassos, Scarponis, Eufemianos...the list goes on and on.

As for Quantum Mechanics, the first one was that guy with the handheld computer that would show up randomly in the TV show Quantum Leap starring the one and only Scott Bakula.

Any more questions?